RECOMMENDED: The Digital in the Humanities: An Interview with Ted Underwood

The latest installment of Melissa Dinsman‘s series on the digital humanities for the Los Angeles Review of Books is an interview with Ted Underwood (University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign).

In the conversation, Underwood discusses his dislike of the term “digital humanities,” which he takes to simply indicate “a vague interest in technology,” and notes that he instead prefers to identify his work as “distant reading,” a specific literary research method.

People want to pretend that DH is a coherent research program so they can write stirring manifestoes and trenchant critiques of it. But interest in technology is not really a research program or an idea with clear political significance. It’s a trend, like being a hipster or a geek, that belongs in the style section.

Much of the interview touches on the issues around cross-disciplinary scholarship and the humanities, with Underwood emphasizing that “quantitative fields are not grab bags of tools”:

Statistics is an epistemology. Machine learning is really, honest to God, a theory of learning. These fields can be philosophical interlocutors for the humanities, helping us to think about interpretation on a scale where variation and uncertainty are central problems.

Underwood also considers the challenges in curricular training for digital methods in the humanities and issues such as gender imbalance, speaking of his own institutional context with regards to DH and LIS:

We don’t have a digital humanities program or center at Illinois, and I’m not trying to build one. What we do have is a school of Library and Information Science (LIS). That’s where most distant reading actually gets done on our campus. As disciplines go, LIS is pretty serious about inclusiveness. The majority of students are women. Inequities still exist within LIS, but it’s a very different model from computer science, and I see it as a good model to build on: a place where programming and statistics, along with social inquiry, are already being taught to a diverse student population.

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